Turning 100 this month, she is among Bletchley’s last known surviving veterans – and is now publishing a memoir, No More Secrets
Photo: Andrew Crowley
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On Betty Webb’s windowsill, overlooking her large Worcestershire garden, sits a pair of binoculars “at the ready” and a diary in which she meticulously records her sightings. “Before I get dressed, I sit and watch the birds,” she says.
The skills required for the recreation – patience, a keen eye and assiduous attention to detail – are not dissimilar from those she honed more than 80 years ago at Bletchley Park, Britain’s codebreaking headquarters, which ran an operation so successful that historians have credited it with shortening the Second World War by two to four years and saving countless lives.
Aged 18, in 1941, Webb began work in the German Police Section in a freezing office above the Bletchley mansion ballroom, cataloguing intercepted encrypted messages of the German military police, army and SS. (She was “startled” to be told by a historian 75 years later that she had been processing some of the first communications about the transport of Jews to the death camps.) In 1943, she relocated to the Japanese Military Section in Block F, a concrete hut nicknamed the Burma Road because of its length.
It means Webb – who turns 100 on May 13 – is the last known surviving veteran who worked on both German and Japanese codes. To celebrate her centenary, she will be holding a party in the Bletchley ballroom and is publishing a memoir, No More Secrets.
She greets me at the front door of her immaculate bungalow in the village of Wythall, where she lives alone. “Mr Smallman,” she says, with a smile and a firm handshake, before insisting that if she had known I was walking from the train station, she would have given me a lift.
Webb still drives, remains President of the Birmingham branch of the Women’s Royal Army Corps Association, and gives regular talks to schools. What’s more, with the aid of two hip replacements, she does all her own cooking and cleaning. After she tells me she is puzzled by people’s reactions to her normal everyday activities, I try not to look too impressed.
She has lost none of her wartime sense of understatement. Despite the MBE, the Légion d’honneur and the two shelves of books in her sitting room on the subject – many referencing Webb – she was unsure there would be an audience for hers. “Well, yes, I didn’t think that it would have been of particular interest to anybody,” she says, “but I’ve been persuaded.”
Webb’s war story could have turned out quite differently. In 1941, she was doing a domestic science course near Shrewsbury, learning how to make “basic stuff” with meagre rations. Keen to contribute more to the war effort than a competent sausage roll, she signed up to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and, after basic training and an interview, Private Charlotte Vine-Stevens – as she was – was told to get herself on a train to Buckinghamshire.
“I’d never heard of Bletchley,” she explains. “We had absolutely no idea what was going on. Next morning, I was taken into the mansion and given the Official Secrets Act to read” – by an army captain with a handgun on this desk. “Formidable document,” she says, still sobered by the memory.
Webb thinks she was chosen because of her command of German, which she learnt as a child, including during a three-month exchange to Saxony in 1937. Then 14, she knew little of the politics, but “sensed unrest” and was embarrassed at being expected to do a Hitler salute at the start and finish of every class.
On her floral sofa, she chuckles as she demonstrates her subversion of the gesture. “I sort of waved my hand about. It wasn’t a salute in the strictest terms.”
For much of her life, Webb retained “something of an inferiority complex” that she had been home-schooled in rural Shropshire by her mother. Bletchley turned out to be “my university”, where aristocrats mixed with “people like me”, and where women outnumbered men three to one. She joined the Park’s madrigal society, gramophone society and Bach choir. There were also a fair few eccentrics. “Oh, yes, some of them were bordering on the barmy,” she exclaims, “but that’s what we needed. They had the skills.” She has no memory of the great Alan Turing: “I never met him, but then I don’t think anybody did because the poor man had asthma and he used to cycle to work with a gas mask on”.
It was her aptitude for paraphrasing – rewriting translated Japanese messages so that if any were intercepted after being passed on, the enemy would not know that codes had been cracked – that saw her dispatched to the Pentagon in the US in May 1945. She was the only member of the ATS to be posted there and may be the only person who can say they celebrated VE Day in London and VJ Day in Washington.
It is still a source of regret that she was not able to talk about her work with her music teacher mother and Lloyds Bank clerk father, who both died before she was released from the binds of the Official Secrets Act. As soon as she signed it: “I realised that I was completely cut off”, and for 30 years she had to pretend she had done nothing more during the war than “boring secretarial work”. She ended up waiting a further two decades after declassification to share her story with the world. “It wasn’t easy to open up – you felt guilty almost. It was extraordinary. It was a discipline which you couldn’t throw off.”
Webb was at liberty to tell her husband, Alfred, whom she married at 47, “but he didn’t seem to be particularly interested. He just said, ‘Oh yes, I think I was posted somewhere near there.’ And I didn’t push it because, you know, you get involved with explaining all about Bletchley, you’re there for a week.” Alfred died in 1978, giving the couple less than 10 years together.
After the war, she worked as a grammar school secretary and with the Territorial Army, taught herself Spanish and Norwegian and served on her parish council for 32 years.
Pinned to her knitted blue cardigan, Webb wears the “commemorative badge” presented to Bletchley veterans in 2009. On the back is the inscription: “We also served.” I wonder whether she would like to see them receive a proper medal. “Of course, there’s hardly anybody left now. But it would be nice if we could.” Bletchley tells me that most remaining codebreakers are aged 99 or 100. Ten thousand worked at the Park and its outstations. At last year’s reunion, 19 attended. This year, they will expect only 10.
Webb, who grew up with no gas, electricity or running water and has lived to see the reigns of five monarchs and 21 prime ministers, is one of the last survivors. She notes how strange it is, thanks to revelations from her book research, to be turning 100 and still be learning about herself.
Post-birthday, she “shall just plough on”, and vows to continue to talk about the significance of Bletchley to anyone who will listen. “It’s one of the most important parts of our history,” she says with passion. “And I dread to think where we would be without it.”
- ‘No More Secrets: My Part in Codebreaking at Bletchley Park and the Pentagon’, by Betty Webb, is published on May 4 (Mardle)